If you look at Chelsey Fix ’19, smiling at the center of a recent photo with the University of Lynchburg Debate and Forensics Society, the first thing that comes to mind is definitely not Jim Jones, the infamous cult leader who initiated the mass suicide of more than 900 of his followers in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.
Despite those contradictory images, at a recent debate and forensics tournament in Gastonia, North Carolina, Fix performed an excerpt from Jones’s “death speech” and took home first place in the Declamation event. Teammate and Society president Justin Cummings ’19 described her performance as “terrifying.”
“It’s about being able to take something and find your own voice with it and it’s so different from who she really is that it’s delightful to see,” Cummings said of the Declamation event, which involves recreating speeches from history. “She has a powerful presence that you don’t expect. It’s very unexpected. You look at her — she’s like five-foot-one — and here she is speaking of commanding the world. It’s impressive and she does a very good job with it.”
Fix said she chose Jones’s speech because “it’s real and gripping” and said, “There’s a way to make my voice sound more preacher-like, which really sets the tone for the audience.”
She also had a deeper purpose. “TV shows like ‘Waco’ and ‘American Horror Story’ remind us of how extreme cults can be, but what happened with the followers at Peoples Temple can only be explained through that final speech,” she said. “I also find Jim Jones very intriguing. I’ve listened to various podcasts and researched him tremendously. He’s one of the greatest hypocrites of all time and I love exposing that. When people listen to this piece they really get a feel for his insanity.”
Fix and other members of Lynchburg’s Debate and Forensics Society were in North Carolina February 16 and 17 for a tournament hosted by the Collegiate Forensic Association. Lynchburg, which has had debate and forensics for only four years, competed and placed in several categories and placed fourth overall.
In addition to her first in Declamation, Fix also placed first in After Dinner Speaking, an event Cummings describes as “a mix of serious topic and humorous delivery.” For this event, competitors write original speeches. Fix’s speech, for example, was about endangered ducks.
In other awards, Cummings placed fourth in Prose Interpretation, sixth in Single Dramatic Interpretation, and teamed up with Jenna Lopez ’21 for a fifth in Duo Interpretation. Fix and Ashani Parker ’21 placed sixth in Duo Interpretation. Single Dramatic Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, and Prose Interpretation all involve reading dramatic or literary works from a script. “It’s kind of like acting,” Cummings said, “but with a script.”
The Debate and Forensics Society’s final tournament of the academic year is March 2 and 3 in Ocean City, Maryland. Thus far, Cummings said, the 2017-18 season has been their best yet. “We’ve gone to more tournaments and brought home more trophies than ever before. We’re going out and beating teams twice our size that have had debate and forensics teams at their school for four times as long. It’s been a true honor to see the team grow and succeed.”
Dr. Paula Youra, the team’s faculty adviser and coach, has been involved in debate and forensics for 25 years, as a competitor and a coach. She knows what it’s like to compete and said it’s grueling. “They’re competing for about 12 hours a day,” she said. “Chelsey was in six different events, literally competing all day long, starting around 8 a.m. and not finishing till about 7 o’clock. It’s laborious and difficult. It takes a certain stamina and lots of practice.”
Also, she said, there are no scholarships or credit to be earned in debate and forensics, “only the satisfaction that they’ve competed and won. All of them will tell you that they love it. It’s making them better public speakers and gets them ready for job interviews and professional experiences, when they need to perform well.”